Jimmy Ogonga: First and foremost, I would like to thank you for inviting us to this roundtable. I would also like to extend my greetings to the other participants, and to commend them for the steps that they are making in their respective projects.
Nairobi Arts Trust / Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa (CCAEA) was founded in 2001, as a result of a continuous wave of cultural, social & political agitation and conversations arising from a stagnation and monotony that characterized the period around the early and mid-1990’s, particularly in Kenya.
We had educational, political & social systems which, years after independence, had continued to produce indoctrinated, class-oriented minds. As a result, there was uniform pressure on subsequent generations to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, business people – not for any fundamental purpose, but simply because these careers could ‘sell’ and be lucratively absorbed into the wage labor system.
In the universities, there was no art education, and in the years that followed, no structures were created for the arts in terms of spaces, galleries, publications, events or even education opportunities to develop artists, curators, writers, arts-administrators, and so on. The result was that the scene became some kind of ‘theatre of the absurd’, where everything was anything. There were no references, no standards, no history, no sense of direction. Culturally, we were in some kind of limbo. There were neither intellectual tools available in the mass of society to question the moment, nor any activities or scenarios that could encourage curiosity. The prevalence of irrational and illogical speech in the cultural field had reached the ultimate conclusion: silence.
Art, or any form of cultural expression existed as a trivial and scandalous enterprise. In such a society, to be an artist meant you were not serious. It was failure; it was plan B—an alternative to something else, especially given that there was no art education in Kenyan schools. The official government definition imagined culture only as something traditional and belonging to the past, notwithstanding that within official ranks, the idea of the past, was informed by the same redundant ideas about an Africa derived from colonial and missionary Christian religious education. Culture, for example, was invoked only in the same sentence as tourism or foreign exchange, or existed as “tribal” objects in glass cases at the museum, or as bare-chested young men and women with sisal skirts, some head-gear and painted bodies, all drumming and dancing at the airport for visiting dignitaries.
A 1999 commission formed to review the education system recommended that art and craft, music and home science be made “non-examinable” subjects in primary schools. These recommendations were adopted—effectively ensuring that the important foundation that opens up the child’s mind to a creative existence & curiosity about his/her environment was demolished. Previously, under the 8-4-4 system, at least there was art & craft, Home Science and Music in primary and secondary schools. It is these that have at least laid some groundwork for the current generation of artists—which explains why more than 90% of the current practicing artists in Kenya are around or below the age of 40 and are “self-taught.”
As young artists mostly living in or around Nairobi, and who had either just begun or were starting our careers, we found ourselves in an extremely hostile environment, since we were bearing witness to an ongoing criminality and dared to react. We saw how the ravages of new experiments such as Structural Adjustment Programs devastated our parents, neighbors, acquaintances and left them desolate, helpless, irrespective of how hard they worked. We saw the banking industry impoverish hardworking men and women, and subjected even unborn generations to a future of servitude. We witnessed the excesses of individualism, political oligarchy and a new elite that embraced these experiments. We saw how academia—intellectuals, schools, universities—became new frontiers for furthering & perpetuating the rhetoric for a new, re-packaged colonial order. We saw how our contemporary history was suppressed as soon as it occurred, and how it was disparaged sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter to the point where, in chaotic monosyllables, it became the only existing document of that era. We saw how an intricate machinery hijacked educational systems and, through popular culture, worked relentlessly on a systematic theology to perpetuate, popularize, and even validate amnesia. We saw how the law was manipulated and became complicit in this criminality.
It is out of this chaos that Nairobi arts trust / Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa emerged. At the outset, the initiative was developed as a form of counter-strategy for this mess, especially out of a desire to simply articulate or tell alternative stories. We realized that if the situation is to change, we have to continuously develop the necessary structures that can cultivate new opportunities for contemporary expression; to continuously internalize these processes; document them, critique, theorize, publish and archive them, preserve them and share them – to the extent that the very concrete and psychological obstacles that kept us isolated—even from one another—are overcome.
Our preferred reference point inevitably was Africa, and we were surprised and delighted at how our own narratives interconnected with debates in other parts of the continent & diasporas. It was imperative that we connect with our brothers & sisters from other places, for through them, maybe, we could start imagining ourselves through artistic practices and discourse more clearly. Some of the ideas, discourses and conversations generated by major developments such as Dak’art, the Johannesburg biennials, Magiciens de la terre, the Short Century, the publications Revue Noir, or even previous initiatives such as FESTAC, just to mention a few, provided the fuel that sustained the fire. We were keen to originate within ourselves sufficient vocabularies that could coherently express our histories, predicaments & aspirations, to further our voices and present them in their varying complexities, both regional & internationally.
It is ten years since we made the step of forming this organization, and here we are…